Sports

Trey Lance and the Siren Song of a Small Sample Size

At the Senior Bowl in January, the plexiglass budget was $12,000. Three-inch slabs of transparent thermoplastic divided players and evaluators as they met for 15-minute interviews. Since there would be no in-person interaction at the NFL combine in March, they afforded the only opportunity for many prospects to talk face-to-face with team personnel.

These limitations represent the shallow end of necessary concessions that teams and scouts have made this draft cycle to stay safe during the COVID-19. At least there was a Senior Bowl; many similar all-star games were canceled and the combine was unrecognizable, far from the industry convention, marathon interview session, and medical and athletic testing gauntlet it usually is. Even at the Senior Bowl, teams that weren’t coaching in the game could send only 10 evaluators to see prospects. Instead of schmoozing with coaches, agents, and trainers at bars and restaurants, team representatives carpooled to pick up groceries to stock their hotel rooms; the Whole Foods near Mobile Regional Airport replaced Veet’s Bar as a common destination. For many top decision-makers, the event was the first time they’d watched potential first-round draft picks in person in at least a year—scouts were out on the road during the 2020 college football season, but most higher-level evaluators stayed home since they couldn’t pop in, for instance, to Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor for a game without producing a negative COVID-19 test and self-isolating before returning to their team facilities. What they did watch of the college season, in person or on film, still came with the caveats of those teams’ altered schedules, rosters, and preparation.

“In some respects the 2019 film is probably better, more of an apples-to-apples comparison of where players were,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last week.

Whenever possible, evaluators have made what they can of their limited opportunities, attending more college pro days, speaking to their college contacts, and maximizing their interviews with players, be they on Zoom or through clear plastic barriers. Anything to guard their ears against the siren song of the draft process: projection. It’s louder than ever this year.

“I’ve spent more time going back to 2019, the year before, than I ever have before in my process and trying to get a feel for players that I haven’t seen in over a year,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay on a conference call earlier this month. “So it’s really weird. Talking to guys in the league, general managers and head coaches, everyone’s—I don’t want to say frustrated, but it’s just so different.”

Events like the Senior Bowl offer firsthand exposure for teams, allowing them to watch players compete alongside other draft-ready prospects to inform their evaluations. For other players, though, particularly those whose college seasons were canceled or cut short, projection is inevitable. And for no player is that more true than for former North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.

For a potential top-10 pick, Lance has played shockingly little football. Born May 9, 2000, Lance is the only 20-year-old quarterback in this draft class and the only likely first-round pick out of the Football Championship Subdivision of college football. He also didn’t come close to playing a full 2020 season; the Bison played just one game, in October, against Central Arkansas and canceled the rest of Lance’s redshirt sophomore slate due to COVID-19. That Central Arkansas game was one of Lance’s shakiest—he completed 15 of 30 passes and threw the only interception of his college career. Before that, Lance had thrown only 288 passes in his college career.

“It’s different, it really is,” McShay said.

Still, at 6-foot-4 and 224 pounds with a 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash, Lance is a tantalizing prospect with elite athleticism. He did not face top competition in college but played in a pro-style system and combined creativity with accuracy and sound decision-making. A team will draft him high in the first round, understanding that his talent is worth accepting some risk.

There’s no way around it: Lance is the draft’s ultimate projection prospect. His season was almost entirely canceled and there were no private workouts this cycle (though he did have two pro days). He’s an example of why projection becomes both tantalizing and dangerous.

The job of an NFL scout is to gather information and report back those findings. When strictly relaying what they saw on tape, heard from sources, and confirmed via athletic tests, it’s actually difficult for scouts to get it wrong. Sam Darnold was turnover-prone in college, a fact that was reflected in his scouting reports, and has remained turnover-prone in the NFL. Baker Mayfield was accurate with a crisp throwing motion, but had bad habits that showed up under pressure; both traits remain. Josh Allen is arguably the most successful recent projection story, though given that he went no. 7, scouts may have seen Allen as a closer-to-finished product than the general public.

Scouting reports tend to start with dry language in the present tense. Willing tackler. Good hand-fighter. Struggles with in-breaking routes. When they trickle up into war rooms and out into the general public, though, they tend to take on more predictive language. Can be an every-down player for us. Versatile enough to fit any scheme. Will be a locker room leader. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just an exercise with a lower batting average, and that’s before you get to the extreme examples, like Dan Snyder unilaterally selecting Dwayne Haskins against the wishes of his own team’s coaching staff and scouting department or Josh Rosen spending one year behind a porous offensive line in Arizona before getting traded and becoming an afterthought.

I asked several personnel evaluators to think of examples of players who, fairly plainly, didn’t work out because they’d been misevaluated. Examples where the scouts got it wrong—looked at a player and saw things that weren’t there. It was surprisingly difficult to come up with good answers.

The Jets paid for the mistake of breaking their own size/weight/body mass requirements by taking Vernon Gholston no. 6 in 2008. “Tweeners” like Gholston, a defensive end at Ohio State who was drafted to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense New York ran at the time, are some of the best examples of missteps because teams are making a determination about what position they can play in the NFL that’s often different from where they had success in college. Gholston didn’t have the size to play the position he’d excelled at in college at the NFL level, but the Jets predicted his athleticism would ease his transition, an erroneous assumption.

Some positions require more projection from college to the NFL, resulting in lower hit rates. One source theorized that the shaky production of former first-round tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Eric Ebron could be due in part to the tendency to fall in love with measurables and testing numbers over production at that position.

It’s easier to find examples of picks that teams missed on because they focused on what players might not be able to do instead of focusing on what they’d already shown they could. Former Giants executive Marc Ross said recently on The Ringer NFL Show that one of his major personnel regrets in New York was not acting on one of his scouts’ advice to draft Russell Wilson in 2012.

“Russell Wilson was always great at what he did. No matter what he did, he was great,” Ross said.

The bulk of a player’s evaluation comes from what’s on tape against live competition rather than offseason predraft events such as pro days and the combine, the purpose of which is to check outstanding boxes. More than anything else, it’s to standardize results. That didn’t happen this year.

“I look at all these pro day numbers and I have a database that gets filled up every single day with all the pro days, but the numbers are just ridiculous,” McShay said. “You can’t compare them to the combine and that’s what we’ve always had. If you run a 4.44 at the combine you can compare that to the other receivers from previous years.

“This year, guys are running 4.26, 4.35. They’re unbelievable numbers and you can’t compare them to previous combines, you have to just compare them against all the other receivers or corners this year and what the pro day numbers are spitting out.”

McShay said that a general manager told him he’s been to more pro days this year than in any other year of his decades-long career.

“Everyone that’s evaluating is going out and spending more time on the road, trying to at least be around the player, see the quarterback, the ball come off his hands, see the receiver run his routes and try to get more information because they’re not getting as much information as they have in the past,” McShay said.

It’s in this information-hungry context that teams are evaluating Lance. At his second pro day on Monday, representatives from the 49ers—including coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch—Falcons, Patriots, and Broncos watched as Lance went through throwing progressions scripted by quarterback coach John Beck, who reportedly took input from San Francisco’s reps on what they wanted to see Lance do.

There’s one way of looking at Lance as a Russell Wilson–type prospect in this class, if you replace concerns over Wilson’s height with concerns over Lance’s small sample size of production. Nearly everything Lance has done, he’s done well. It’s just hard to say whether his one major caveat—limited production—makes it impossible to adequately evaluate him. Is it even possible to look at what Lance has done without the immediate reminder of what he hasn’t? It’s at about the same moment that the scouting report mentions the 318 total college throws that an interview through plexiglass doesn’t seem like such an impediment, after all.

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